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Here's the real reason we can't renationalise the railways

Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham have both pledged to renationalise the railways - but we can't do that while we're in the European Union, says Kate Hoey. 

As we approach the end of Labour’s leadership contest one of the most interesting things about the last few weeks has been the resurgence of policy ideas that many had thought Labour had confined to the rubbish bin.

Take the nationalisation of the railways. When Ed Miliband was the leader of our party, efforts to put immediate renationalisation in the manifesto were thwarted. One year on, and both Andy Burnham  and Jeremy Corbyn have promised to renationalise Britain’s railway network.  The debate has certainly shifted left, but could either Andy or Jeremy deliver on such a promise? I’m not so sure, as neither candidate have said how they would address the big obstacle that their promise faces: the European Union.

Undoubtedly EU law will be a huge obstacle to any renationalisation scheme – especially one that aims to do away with competition and markets. The EU is clear that its objective is “Opening up national freight and passenger markets to cross-border competition”. Its directives and regulations have created what can only be described as a legal quagmire.   

The main EU law in this area was the First Railway Directive (which was replaced and upgraded in 2012 with a new version). This was the original law that gave the Tories the excuse they needed to introduce their privatisation agenda in the nineties. That law enshrined the role of the private sector by making it a legal requirement for independent companies to be able to apply for non-discriminatory track access on a member state's track, calling for:

“separating [of] the management of railway operation and infrastructure from the provision of railway transport services, separation of accounts being compulsory and organizational or institutional separation being optional.”

The 2012 Directive has kept that principle and goes even further, and says that one of its aims is "to boost competition in railway service management". It also stipulates that: "Greater integration of the Union transport sector is an essential element of the completion of the internal market... The efficiency of the railway system should be improved, in order to integrate it into a competitive market".

In short, this means that multiple train operating companies must be allowed to use the same track competitively. In Germany it has resulted in the state-owned Deutsche Bahn facing more and more competition from other firms.

Provisions like this mean that, under Prime Minister Burnham or Prime Minister Corbyn, there would be huge legal obstacles in the way of renationalising the railways. How will any effort to block private operators be compatible with EU competition law, for example?

Some claim that “European rules do not dictate that railways must be fully privatised” – note the interesting use of the word “fully”. It’s true that UK law has gone further than the EU law currently requires, but it is also true that the EU would prevent a nationalisation agenda from going as far as many would like.

This is a problem that is only going to get worse with time. The EU is likely to pass even more laws in this area. Since 1991 the EU has introduced three railway packages, which have imposed numerous legal requirements on the member states. A fourth package is on its way – which will further open up domestic passenger services to competition. All of these laws limit a UK Government’s freedom of action and will bind the hands of a future Labour Government. 

It would be hyperbole to say that all efforts to renationalise the railways would be blocked by the EU, but it would be equally naïve to dismiss the problem. The facts are simple: the EU creates real legal problems for any nationalisation agenda and will bind the hands of a future Labour Government that attempts to deliver on such a manifesto policy. Honest politics demands detail: before they can give renationalisation a green light, we need to know exactly how the candidates plan to get the EU-shaped elephant off the tracks. 

Kate Hoey is MP for Vauxhall and co- chair of Labour for Britain.

 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.